Breaking down the Raptors potential first-round opponents

NBA analyst Michael Grange joins Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup to discuss the Raptors’ potential first-round playoff opponents.

With a firm hold on the Eastern Conference’s second seed, the Toronto Raptors have been coasting for awhile now as they wait to see which team will meet them in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.

And now, with only one game remaining on the regular-season schedule for most teams, the list of potential first round opponents for the Raptors has narrowed considerably.

Entering play on Tuesday, only the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons have a shot at finishing as the East’s seventh seed.

Both Brooklyn and Orlando have identical 41-40 records entering Game 82, however, the Nets own the tiebreaker over Orlando since they won the season series. If both teams were to win their final games on Wednesday, Orlando would secure the seventh seed and wind up meeting Toronto in Round 1. If the Magic lose their final game, and the Pistons drop one of their final two contests, Orlando would still be the East’s seventh seed.

The Nets can only finish at No. 7 if they lose their final game and the Magic win. As for the Pistons, they’ll face the Raptors if they win their remaining two games, the Magic lose and the Nets win.

For those interested in a breakdown of each playoff scenario, the NBA produced the following graph:

With that being said, there is still one important question that needs to be answered: Which of those teams is the Raptors’ most ideal playoff matchup?

Brooklyn Nets

Regular season series: Raptors won 3-1

Toronto may have won the season series against Brooklyn, but it hasn’t come in the easiest fashion. Two of the teams’ four matchups this season were decided by two points or fewer, with one of those contests requiring overtime.

Coach of the Year candidate Kenny Atkinson has done a fantastic job all season with the upstart Nets, consistently finding ways to get the most production out of his group even when facing teams with significant talent advantages. One way he’s found success doing so is by getting his team out and running on the break, as Brooklyn ranks 11th league-wide in pace.

Pushing the pace, and thus creating more possessions, has aided in the development of Brooklyn’s up-and-coming talent, none more so than D’Angelo Russell. The former Ohio State standout is finishing off a breakout campaign for Brooklyn that saw him average career-highs in points (21.1), assists (7.0), and true shooting percentage (53.0 per cent) in his fourth NBA season.

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Russell poses the only real cause for concern for Toronto, as he’s developed into an offensive weapon capable of potentially going supernova in a playoff series. Limiting his production would undoubtedly be the top priority for Nick Nurse and Co. if the Raptors wind up meeting the Nets in the post-season, as the latter can only go as far as their top offensive option takes them.

It would also be wise for Toronto to emphasize limiting Brooklyn’s attack from beyond the arc. The Nets have taken, and made, the fifth-most three-pointers this season, encompassing the preferred style of play in today’s game to a tee. Toronto does rank inside the top-10 when it comes to defending against the three, so continuing to close out well and limit shooters’ airspaces would go a long way in making this series less taxing. Luckily for Nurse, his roster is littered with switchable defenders that excel at those skills.

Orlando Magic

Regular season series: Teams tied 2-2

After taking a closer look, this Orlando team should not be glanced over come playoff time.

Orlando is one of the NBA’s hottest teams since the start of February, having gone 21-9 since Jan. 31. A huge reason behind the team’s success has been the Magic’s defence over that span, which ranks as the best unit in the league and has limited opponents to a league-low 31.7 per cent from three-point range. Aside from a strong defence, Orlando also excels at securing rebounds — they limit opponents to a league-low 10.7 second-chance points per game — and distributing the rock — Orlando has averaged 27.3 assists per game since Jan. 31, the NBA’s fifth-highest mark.

Toronto had issues with Orlando during the regular season, getting blown out on two occasions. In those two lopsided defeats, the Magic’s leading scorer, Nikola Vucevic, absolutely feasted with averages of 26.5 points, 15.5 rebounds and six assists, so it’s somewhat obvious which player the Raptors would be honing in on containing most in a best-of-seven series. (It’s worth mentioning that one of Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard were absent in both losses).

The biggest problem for Toronto goes back to Orlando’s defence and pace of play. The Magic play at the 23rd slowest pace in the NBA, which helps them reduce the amount of turnovers they commit and also caters to their defensive-first mindset by limiting the number of possessions an opponent has. Head coach Steve Clifford has the luxury of deploying athletic, lengthy defenders — highlighted by Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac — who are capable of giving the Raptors’ offensive weapons issues.

Of the two teams covered so far, Brooklyn appears to be a more favourable matchup for Toronto than Orlando is, at least on paper.

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Detroit Pistons

Regular season series: Pistons won 3-0

While it’s by far the least likely team Toronto will face — there’s only one scenario (listed above) that would lead to a Raptors-Pistons series to start the playoffs — we still have to mention Detroit since there is still a small chance this matchup happens.

This also happens to be the team Toronto had the most trouble with in the regular season.

The Dwane Casey-led Pistons won all three games against the Raptors this season, albeit by very close margins. Detroit outscored Toronto by a total of 10 points across the teams’ three meetings, with one of those contests being decided in overtime.

Detroit operates at an even more snail-like pace than Orlando, which in turn helps them limit opponents’ points scored against. Considering how the pace of play tends to slow down in the post-season, playing at the NBA’s third-slowest pace should, in theory, help Detroit when it comes to transitioning into post-season play.

Of the three potential opponents for the Raptors, the Magic would likely pose the biggest threat to pull off a monumental upset. As for which team would be the most ideal for Toronto to face in Round 1, Brooklyn feels like the safest pick. Toronto is best-equipped to contain Brooklyn’s offensive attack, rather than a slower, more methodical offence like Orlando’s or Detroit’s.

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